Wasn’t particularly keen to do this 7-day 90-mile (well, 99.5 mile) 44 ‘pub crawl with altitude’ but in retrospect I can’t imagine a more captivating holiday in the lakes.
The first thing I noticed as we took the taxi (thanks to Virgin or Network Rail we missed the final YHA shuttle of the night) between Windermere and Ambleside was the savage mountain relief against the dusk. We ate that night at Zeffirelli’s which is attached to the cinema and looks after vegans well.
On the first day we left our 3-bed YHA room (101, bunk, single, wetroom shower and washstand) overlooking the lake at about 10, stopping in Ambleside to buy lunch from Lucy’s (seeds, bhajis, samosas, quiche. From there we walked in warm sun to Rosthwaite over two high peaks the first of which was Heron Pike. We had trouble getting off that one and ended up just picking our way down the hillside. Then we stopped at Grasmere and ate our lunch surreptitiously in the garden of The Swan, a MacDonalds hotel on the outskirts. We kept a running joke about Brian’s next girlfriend being a mop from a gipsy fair with little clothespegs for hands. Then we climbed along a remote, rocky, cloud-chased valley up to Grasmere Common and Greenup Edge. Brian had his only accident, a hard fall off a slippy stone onto his knee. Later he said he wasn’t sure at that time if he was going to be able to continue. The way down to Rosthwaite was steep stone steps – I was trying to save my knees so was pretty slow. Under Eagle Crag, in the evening’s golden haze was most charming sight – a brave blue little tent pitched on a rare bit of flat ground next to a stoney-bedded stream. There were packs outside and laughter inside. We crept past unnoticed. Two peaks was a bit much to ask on the first day – I was very unfit and recovering from my virus. I don’t quite know what to say about the Scafell Hotel in Rosthwaite. The room was nice – mountain views through two windows, and a heated towel rail. My prior warning about being vegan had not percolated to the kitchen but at the same time as being utterly unprepared we were served by an unhelpfully solicitous (and it wasn’t her fault that I found her unhelpful, either) former vegan who took an unbelievably stringent line on what I could eat. No bread (chicken feathers!), no margarine and no rasberry coulis (she said E numbers means something porcine). It became obvious that her pronouncements were news to me, but that didn’t stop her. No wonder she’d given up. I eventually received a bowl of salad topped by an apple cut into the shape of a swan. (I began to get paranoid.) Matt and B were served the same vegetables as me, which meant they had to forego the garlic butter and lemon butter. The next day I insisted on eating the hotel bread and my packed lunch showed evidence of effort (though the oily salad they had packed so carefully blew into my face on top of Cat Bells and they had tried to withhold the apple for indeterminate vegan reasons). Here lies the problem: it’s early days for my vegan diet and I’m only gradually edging out the obscure additives which strict vegans veto. It’s not surprising that the kitchen staff (underpaid, possibly, at £75.00 for one night’s dinner, bed and breakfast) should resent having to cater for such freeform and morally impenetrable dietary requirements? How do you explain what you do or don’t eat to somebody who is not a vegan but knows more about animal ingredients than many vegans do? I was pretty inconsistent about what I choose to turn a blind eye towards in bought meals. I wouldn’t touch any advertised dish containing egg, milk or meat but I didn’t ask about the ingredients of the bread, for instance – particularly not when I depend on it as my main source of energy on a day-long mountain trek. What I liked about that place, and next day’s, was the custom of serving after-dinner coffee in the lounge. B persuaded a waitress from Easter Europe to teach him how to fold serviettes into waterlily flowers.
The second day was hot and sunny. We climbed up through old slate workings onto High Spy, walked along a dramatic ridge, coming down steeply via Cat Bells which was spoilt (or enhanced if you were B) by some girls selling poor quality home-made flap-jacks to fund a pointless philanthropic trip to Sri Lanka, with enough energy to deviate to the Swinside Inn late afternoon and from there to Braithwaite for a very pleasant sun-drenched pint in the garden of the Coledale Inn. We then walked to Portinscale just outside Keswick and checked into the Derwentwater Hotel. This was our most expensive B&B stay, but with the best breakfast and the most helpful staff. The advertised jacuzzi was in a hotel somewhere else and I didn’t get to go (mainly because G & C whom we met that evening and who had a car didn’t offer to wait for our arrival with enough conviction to make me confident they wouldn’t resent it – besides which we’d been in the pub so there was no reason to expect them to wait around. That evening there was entertainment in the hotel bar from the Autumn Breeze duo. They were extremely good, though I couldn’t convince anybody I was with that I wasn’t being sarcastic because their style was pitched at a much older age group than ours. The bloke on piano sang True Colours magnificently. Then we had a superior Indian meal in Keswick and walked back in the dark night.
The third day took us from Portinscale via Braithwaite (where we should have stayed but it was Easter Saturday and the Lakes were brimming with holiday-makers) to Buttermere. We walked along a ridge from Grisedale Pike, with superb views and a scarp face falling away to our right scoured by a ferocious wind, cracking jokes and getting suntanned, until we had to come down. Weather came suddenly and there were wreaths of cloud between us. I got scared and wanted to follow the other people who were trickling away on the Buttermere side. I investigated a path but Matt called my phone and persuaded me to turn back. The path we took soon turned to loose stones and for the next half hour or forty minutes we were scree surfing on what might well have been a 1:1 slope. I changed out of my sandals at the first opportunity. The half hour after that was on scree and heather at more or less the same gradient. The following half hour was steep rocks giving way to meadow. By the bottom I’d buggered my right knee. That was the second lesson: fitness is about more than your muscular strength and cardiovascular capacity – it’s about sinews, tendons and ligaments. Do you know, I never realised that before. After a comfortable but brief spell on the flat with breathtaking views of the mountains which ring Buttermere drenched in old sunlight, we walked south along the soggy western edge of Crummock water and I was nearly in tears because I had to go slowly whenever I went downwards, because it hurt, because I thought B and M might think I was spoiling things by indulging a little ache, and because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to carry on the next day. At 6.30 we placed an order for food by mobile phone at YHA Buttermere, we arrive by 7 and sat down clean at 7.30. Matt and B had excellent meals – mine was nachos and a pretty useless farfalle with standard tomato sauce – no dessert – but it was short notice I guess (though I had let them know further in advance). The stairs were very difficult. That night we skittered stiffly down the hill into Buttermere so that M & B could drink Black Sheep at the Bridge Hotel. When we walked back it was clear and we could see layers of stars. I wasn’t allowed to leave my full dormitory of women to sleep in M & B’s empty male dorm. One cow kept the light on for about an hour after everybody else had stopped reading (that’s what the lounge is for) and a few of them snored like walruses though jolting the bunk at intervals stopped the woman below me, temporarily at least. For the first time ever I used ear-plugs – wax ones called Quietas from Sainsbury’s which are mouldable but don’t stick to your hair when they fall out. Tolerable breakfast – B started a habit of taking some away with him, this time a bacon sandwich. We had begun to accumulate fruit, which is time-consuming to eat on a mountainside (choking hazard while walking on rough ground besides which you often need your hands when climbing mountains in the lakes) and unappealing at night when all you want to eat is hot and/or stodgy, I find.
On the fourth day I found a stick and relied on it heavily as we walked towards Black Sail pass. We walked along the shore of Buttermere under low cloud and up to Scarth Gap in a fog which hid Wainright’s favourite mountain, Haystacks, entirely from view. There were droplets on every hair on B’s overgrown action-man scalp. At lunchtime we came to England’s most remote and dinkiest Youth Hostel, Black Sail Hut which sleeps 16 and will serve guests dinner and breakfast (no credit cards). It was open but deserted and a cold misty rain was falling as we let ourselves in. We crept around like three goldilockses, made ourselves a cup of tea (as invited by notice) and ate our lunch in the communal room tables with a log burner behind us, games and a stretcher)on the shelves and boots in the rafters above our heads. It must be a haven on a winter’s night – I’d love to stay somewhere like that. There was a cut-down plantation near to the YHA – they were planning to replant with deciduous trees. Then we walked (me painfully slowly, obliged to take a painkiller) down towards Wasdale. B decided I looked too wild-looking to be allowed into the pub first or I’d be slung out for a gipsy – on arrival I noticed that he was right, I looked as if I’d slept on the mountain. The mist was thick and I was far behind limping down a steep and slippery made path when I hear a call behind me and out of the mist to my left hurtled a mountain biker jolting over the rough ground at an exhilarating pace and gradient, stopping just short of a huge steep gully. Two others followed, one slightly less confident. I’ve never seen mountain bikes on a mountain before and remain impressed. We continued down over waterfalls and along the Ennerdale Valley to Wasdale Head, and I had my only fall (apart from the scree surfing) which was onto my back because of a slippy stone, drank a pint (incidentally, I almost never drank a pint, having a taste for martini rosso or cinzano and soda at the time) and ate a sneaky packed lunch at the Wasdale Inn, bought a walking stick (stock?) from the climber’s shop under Scafell Pike, and set off briskly because it was 5pm and we had 5 miles to cover before Boot. Matt promptly fell over a gorse bush on the flat and broke his work phone on a stone – he wasn’t hurt though. My stick was good and it was uphill onto Eskdale Moor with forbidding Wastwater to our right. The moor was so vastly bleak and empty and the weather so oppressive that as we approached Burnmoor Tarn it was even cheering to see stickleback living in the shallow pools which fed it. Nothing but rasping grasses grew near the tarn and on its far side, inhospitable blank-faced Burnmoor Lodge completed an impression of hostility. We were grateful to leave it by dusk and come down into cheerful, lively little Boot with its three inns and strings of fairy lights. Reading the book before dinner, I learnt that the route we’d taken used to be known as the Corpse Road before Wasdale’s tiny church was consecrated and the villagers had to transport their dead to be buried at Boot. Runaway ponies with ghastly burdens are said to tear through the moor at night. The Brooke House Inn was good for vegans with an excellent uncliched carrot and coriander soup followed by stuffed peppers. The staff were great, and the taxidermy at least tasteful. Strange to say that the best places for vegans I’ve visited outside London this year have had their walls festooned with stuffed animals and animal traps. Breakfast was enjoyable – they had margarine for me too, and a good drying room.
The fifth day was grey so we decided to stick to Mark Reid’s route (at that stage Brian realised with violent faux indignation that Matt had deviated significantly thus far to have us zig-zagging from peak to peak in lung-bursting, heart-racing discomfort) and not go for any particularly high places. While Matt and B calibrated their GPSs I wandered ahead towards the church and saw a full-fleeced sheep scale a 5-foot dry-stone wall. It was in the lane between two enclosures and when it saw me coming, it looked up at the top of the wall into the churchyard and sank back on her haunches like a cat. I was complacently thinking “As if” when she suddenly sprang, appearing to cling vertically half-way up the wall, reaching the top with a second leap where she dithered briefly seeking a solid foothold, finally launching herself to the ground. By the time I reached the churchyard to look she’d cleared a second wall into the adjoining field. Superb performance – I predict an abscondment come shearing time. She’ll be known by her enduring fleece. Then we climbed to Ulpha Fell – I couldn’t get the stick to telescope properly and we didn’t dare take it apart – and passed Harter Fell to our left, walking towards Dunnerdale Forest, where I found another stick and spent the next hour picking and chewing off the hand-scouring nobs. Dunnerdale Forest had moved, we think – it was also being replanted to replace the plantation firs with a mix of broad-leafed deciduous trees and we got lost. For three big fields we plunged in boggy, sodden, tufts of coarse grass which hid rocks, holes and cracks. Water wicked from my trouser-legs onto my socks and down into my boots, which remained wet inside for the rest of the day. We broke our journey at the Newfield Inn at Seathwaite which was lovely. We reached the Black Cock Inn in Broughton In Furness without further incident but slowly because of my cursed knee and a crop of blisters on my wet, softened feet. B would come and walk behind me at intervals, which I suspected was to harry me into faster progress but Matt says was for company and morale, a commonplace gesture conferred by strong upon weak members of scout troops. Matt says you can’t win with me, and that may explain why he didn’t adopt the practice 😐 😉 . After slate quarries and a scarey clamber between imposing fallen bits of mountainside and a dry stone wall, we glimpsed the coast and the Esk estuary, after which we came down into Broughton. For dinner I had a slightly better than average Thai dish from the Black Cock, and a half pint of Mountain Man which is alright but a bit low on hops – my favourite, though I didn’t know it then, is Coniston Bluebird. Then we whisked to the King’s Head and somewhere else In Broughton where I had a warm flat Weston’s perry (forget it – sometimes I wonder what is happening to the British palate, though Matt says they’ve always tasted that way, alcopops before there were alcopops) before being locked into the bar of the Black Cock soon after which I withdrew to bed leaving Matt and B to talk about oil rigs and the West Highland Way with the guv.
Day 6 was Broughton to Coniston. That morning I mended my stick by taking it apart and rescrewing the sections together. Uneventful day – we stopped for lunch at Beacon Tarn where Brian ate his breakfast sausage out of a cereal bag, walked through a drab bit of moor (drab because of the telegraph poles maybe), failed to spot any stone circles or other stone age relics, and also failed to find an open pub at Torver, where I changed into my Tevas, which I did whenever possible. I took them into the lake outside Coniston but not for long because you could die of cold that way. We reached Coniston in sunlight, had a pint and headed up to Coniston Holly How, where we had pizza cooked somewhere else because they’d run out of gas. The cook was an exceptionally happy man who lifted his voice in song about loving haddock pie and was lovely about making a vegan meal. We had a shared room – two bunks. I didn’t go to the pub that evening because my leg was a pain, I’d lost my appreciation for drinking and I wanted to read.
Day 7 was Coniston to Ambleside and it was going to take 9 hours. In hazy warm sunlight we climbed past the Coniston Coppermines YH and around a waterfall and up to Swirl How. I was getting pretty fit and my leg was better on the upward climb. We unzipped our lower trouser legs. We figured Prison Band couldn’t be any worse than Grisedale Pike and it wasn’t. We came down to the Three Shires Stone and had lunch, then walked to Red Tarn. The walk down the valley towards the Langdale Pikes was terribly beautiful. At the bottom we turned towards New Dungeon Ghyll and had a pint in the Old Dungeon Inn. As we climbed again towards Ambleside we saw a paraglider spiral off the Langdale Pikes and land in the field outside the pub. Loughrigg Tarn was magical at dusk with its companionable cottages set at respectful distances, its placid sheep, and the brutal mountains silhouetted behind it. We reached the YHA at the very end of the day and I could have continued. We settled into our original room and then ate at Zeffirelli’s again.